Sunday, April 23, 2017

What Kind of Knowledge Does a Teacher Need?

I have one of those minds that is a treasure trove of useless information. My friends tell me I should go on Jeopardy!. I had a long unbeaten run in Trivial Pursuit broken (by my wife) just a few years ago. I can tell you that Hall of Fame baseball pitcher Robin Roberts of the Phillies, won 28 games and lost only 7 in 1952. I know that the tenth President of the United States, John Tyler, had 15 children. I can name all the states and their capitols and recite The Gettysburg Address. But unless you are playing parlor games (remember them?) or taking standardized tests, this knowledge is not particularly useful for anything.

But speaking of those standardized tests, I have recently been tutoring college juniors on the Praxis II tests that they must pass to be licensed as a teacher in New Jersey. While some of the questions on the tests do try to tap into knowledge that is necessary for teaching, many of the questions are of the random fact variety, a Jeopardy! quiz that puts your teaching license at risk. Fortunately, most of the teaching candidates at Rider pass these tests fairly easily, but some, often students with a history of being poor test takers, struggle mightily. 

One of the challenges prospective elementary teachers face is that they must pass tests in 4 subject areas: English/Language Arts, Mathematics, Science and Social Studies. Only the English Language Arts test is actually focused on pedagogy. The others are content knowledge tests for the most part. As a former history major and current reading specialist, I tutor English/Language Arts and Social Studies. Here is a question from the practice test that the testing company (ETS) provides as an example of what students need to know to pass the Praxis in Social Studies:

     Which of the following organizations was most responsible for the increased tensions over the shortage of a natural resource during the 1970s?
  • content knowledge (Knowing your stuff)
  • general pedagogical knowledge (Knowing how to help students learn stuff)
  • curriculum knowledge (Knowing the "tools of the trade")
  • pedagogical content knowledge (Knowing how best to deliver and assess content so that students can learn)
  • knowledge of learners and their characteristics (Knowing how my students best learn)
  • knowledge of educational contexts (Knowing the norms of the community where you work)
  • knowledge of ends, purposes, and values (Knowing why are we engaged in this enterprise of schooling)

This is quite a list, of course, and just reading it can make the task of teaching seem daunting indeed, but the concept that most interests me for the current discussion is this idea of pedagogical content knowledge (PCK). According to Shulman, pedagogical content knowledge is

the blending of content and pedagogy into an understanding of how particular topics, problems, or issues are organized, represented, and adapted to the diverse interests and abilities of learners, and presented for instruction.

Donovan, Bransford, and Pelligrino (2000) explain further that

Pedagogical content knowledge is different from knowledge of general teaching methods. Expert teachers know the structure of their disciplines, and this knowledge provides them with cognitive roadmaps that guide the assignments they give students, the assessments they use to gauge students’ progress, and the questions they ask in the give and take of classroom life.

Obviously this is a level of knowledge that cannot be Googled. How does a teacher get this knowledge?

Shulman suggests four ways: 1) study in the content area, 2) study of the materials to be used for instruction and assessment, 3) formal educational scholarship, and 4) the wisdom that comes only from practice itself.

So yes, it is very important that students develop expertise in the content they will teach (1), but it is just as important that they get the opportunity to interact with actual materials they will use for teaching (2). It is also important that students study all the important research that has gone into how students learn (3), but just as important that prospective teachers get lots of time in the classroom to practice the craft under the watchful eyes and wise guidance of experienced practitioners (4). 

The concept of PCK should be driving the formulation of a course of study for all prospective teachers. Often there is little match between the content students are learning in their history, English, science and math classes and the content they will be teaching in an elementary or high school class. Often their is too little time spent in the study of the likely materials that new teachers will be using in the classroom and their never seems to be enough time for students to spend in the classroom gaining the wisdom of practice itself.

A continued focus on PCK is also the professional responsibility of the practicing teacher. What Shulman calls "the wisdom of practice itself" can only come from a teacher continuing to read the research, keeping abreast of new developments in the discipline, continually reviewing curriculum and assessment materials and practices, and reflecting on what works and what doesn't.

One thing is certain, a licensure program based on standardized tests is never going to be an effective way to identify students who are well-qualified to be teachers or inform a practicing teacher's evaluation. At best, these tests measure a very narrow band of the PCK all teachers need. At worst they provide a false picture of student achievement and teacher performance.

What does a teacher need to know? As the list above indicates, pretty much everything, but most especially a teacher needs pedagogical content knowledge. All of us would do well to inventory our own level of PCK to make sure we are up to the challenge and to ensure that our students are getting the best we have to offer.

I am pleased to say the students that struggled with the Charles Dickens question above, left with a list of books they needed to read over the summer. That is a place to start, but only a start.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

School Choice: The Faustian Bargain

Yesterday, Secretary of Education and school choice champion, Betsy DeVos and school choice opponent and President of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten toured a public school in Ohio. The New York Times reported that the two were there seeking some common ground in the school choice debate. While the school that DeVos and Weingarten visited is in a heavily Republican district in Ohio, the voters there are no fans of school choice. As one voter put it, vouchers are "like theft." "It's saying we passed a levy to go to our school district, and it's going somewhere else." Exactly. School choice is theft of our tax dollars and theft of our democracy.

Choice sounds so democratic, so quintessentially American that voucher and charter school champions keep using the term to hoodwink people into thinking that choice in schooling is a good thing. I suggest that those of us who oppose vouchers and charter schools call school choice what it is in the eyes of that Ohio voter, tax theft. The government collects our taxes in order to provide essential services to all of us. There is no choice involved, we all must pay taxes (unless, apparently, we are hugely wealthy). Those essential services include providing for a military, promoting research on health and welfare, providing for police and fire protection, and funding public schools. When money is diverted from the support of the public schools, it amounts to, as the Ohio voter said, theft. Or maybe another way to say it is "taxation without representation", since voters have no voice and no oversight of how tax money is spent in schools that receive money through vouchers or charters.

It should be readily apparent that corporate education reformers are anti-democracy. In city after city around the country democratically elected school boards have been replaced by boards appointed by the mayor or governor. In Philadelphia, an appointed board has been in place for nearly two decades and the deterioration of the schools has continued unabated. In Detroit, in Betsy DeVos' home state, the state took over the schools and has systematically led them into chaos. And let us remember that DeVos has spent millions to get legislation passed in Michigan that limits any kind of oversight for voucher and charter schools. So quite literally these schools are stealing public funds with no accountability as to how they spend it.

Every truly public school is held strictly accountable for how it spends its money thorough yearly audits. Every public school is also held accountable by periodic elections for members of the school board. If stakeholders don't like the direction of their schools, they can vote in new board members who are more to their liking. Yes, it can be messy. Democracy can be messy, which is why corporate reformers try to do away with it.

When parents send their children to charter schools or voucher schools, they are looking for a better opportunity for their children. We can all understand the appeal of that. What parents may not realize is that they have entered into a Faustian bargain. In order to get this shiny new toy of a voucher, they must give up their voice in their child's education. No elected school board, no independent audit, no budget vote, no say in school policies.

In this drama, Betsy DeVos plays a willing Mephistopheles, offering choice, but getting you to sign away your voice. Without a voice, there is no democracy.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Comprehending Non-Fiction: Setting Kids Up for Success

In a discussion about students and reading content text yesterday, I heard a familiar refrain from a group of elementary teachers. While some readers were highly successful in reading non-fiction, many others struggled to comprehend content text even when that text for all appearances was "at their reading level." My question for the teachers was, "What are you doing to set the children up for success?"

In content literacy what the teacher does before, during and after reading is crucial to the successful comprehension of content text. By consistently using what Vacca, Vacca, amd Mraz (2017) call the B-D-A Instructional Framework, teachers can set all of their readers up for greater success in reading challenging text.

What does this instruction look like?

Before Reading - Before students read the teacher must assist the students in activating and building background knowledge relevant to the text, spur student curiosity and interest in the text, and help students establish a purpose for the reading. Activating background knowledge is a matter of asking the students to list anything they might already know about the topic and discussing how this knowledge will help them understand what they are about to read. Sometimes when helping students activate background knowledge it becomes clear that students lack the background to successfully read the text. When this happens the teacher can show a brief relevant video, read aloud from a picture book or article that fills in some background knowledge for the students, or simply give a brief lecture that helps fill in some gaps in student knowledge.

Before reading, teachers will also want to introduce key vocabulary and concepts that the students will encounter in the reading. What key words will the students need to understand to successfully comprehend the reading?

It is also crucial to consider student motivation for reading the text. Here it is important that the teacher model her own enthusiasm for the material and provide the students with several exmples that assist the students in seeing the personal relevance of the text. Perhaps most important the teacher can use the process of activating and building background knowledge by asking questions that arouse student curiosity.

Finally, before reading it is also important that students understand the task they are being asked to complete. What is the purpose for this reading? What will the student need to do with this information? What questions will the student need to be able to answer as a result of this reading? Being clear with the students on what the reading task demands will help them focus on key information.

Excellent strategies for pre-reading include anticipation guides, PReP and ReQuest. Click on the links for information on how to use these strategies.

During Reading - The purpose of a during reading activity is to guide students in an active search for meaning. As teachers we easily recognize the important parts of a text assignment, many students do not. The lessons we have learned from years of study, and years of reading dense college textbooks and professional materials, are not lessons our students have yet learned, so we need to help them navigate a text while they are reading.

One of the best ways to guide student reading of a text for improved comprehension, but also for improved understanding of how to handle dense content text, is the selective reading guide. In creating a selective reading guide, the teacher reads the text, determines the key concepts that the students must learn form the text, then develops a "guide" to the reading that assists the students in accomplishing the task. The selective reading guide literally tells the student where to be looking and what to be looking for in the reading and generally then asks them to do something with that reading. Here is an example of a selective reading guide. You can learn more about reading guides here.

Other kinds of during reading guides include structured note-taking and three-level guides, also designed to help students focus on important information as they read.

After Reading - The purpose of after reading activities is to assist the students in consolidating and clarifying their understanding. Research indicates that students retain more of their reading if they process that reading by talking or writing about what they have read. A simple turn-and-talk strategy, is one form of after reading activity. Teachers can also have the students do a quick write to jot down thoughts immediately after reading.

One of my favorite after reading activities is the RAFT, which stands for Role, Audience, Format, Topic. In RAFT students are given a writing task that allows them to demonstrate their understanding of the reading in an engaging and integrative way. Here are some examples from various disciplines.

Social Studies - After reading about Lincoln's plans for reconstruction following the Civil War students might be asked to take on the role of Lincoln, writing to the audience of Congress, in the format of a letter, on the topic of Plans for Reconstruction.

Science - After reading about the water cycle, students might be asked to take on the role of a water drop, writing to the audience of other water drops, in the format of a travel brochure, on the topic of A Journey through the Water Cycle.

Mathematics - After studying square root, students might be asked to take on the role of a square root, writing to the audience of other whole numbers, in the format of a love letter, on the topic of Explaining Our Relationship.

You can learn more about the RAFT strategy here.

There are, of course, integrated strategies that provide guidance to students throughout the reading process. For the most part these are all based on the KWL, which asks students what they know, what they hope to learn and what they learned at various stages of the reading process. Most teachers are very familiar with the KWL and it is a well researched, effective strategy that can form the basis of our understanding of the B-D-A Instructional Framework. Read more about the KWL here.

Whatever strategy we choose to use, we must remember that if we want our students to be successful comprehenders of informational text, we have the responsibility to set them up for that success.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Teacher Evaluation: It's About Relationships Not Numbers

In an article this week in Education Week, Van Schoales, CEO of A+ Colorado, an education reform think tank, declared that Colorado's model for teacher evaluation was a failure. This was a model that seemed to possess all the "right stuff" of teacher evaluation that corporate education reformers hold dear (VAMs, growth models, standardized tests, removing teachers who were not performing based on these scores). This is the same model that was supposed to make Colorado "ground zero" for education reform. This is the same model that was lauded by Arne Duncan and the Obama administration as a blueprint for the nation. Schoales says the model, rolled out with much fanfare and hoopla, has failed. He blames implementation (you know all those messy things like trying to implement all this when only about a third of teachers actually teach tested subjects and that teachers were never actually included in the planning).

Yes, Schoales says this was a great idea, implemented badly. While I praise Schoales for admitting the scheme doesn't work, he has learned the wrong lesson. The very idea upon which this evaluation scheme was built was so flawed that there was never any hope of it being successful. Others have recounted in great detail how value added measures (VAMs) are hopelessly flawed. Both the American Education Research Association and the American Statistical Association have declared VAMs misleading and of limited use. Audrey Amrein-Beardsley has written a great book about it.

But the real flaw in all these reformy teacher evaluation plans is in a failure to see what teacher evaluation really is built on. Teacher evaluation is not built on value added scores, or rubrics, or student scores on standardized tests or even primarily on classroom observations.  The great flaw in these reformy schemes, including those MET Studies promulgated by Bill Gates, is that for all their "data" they fail to recognize the most basic of drivers behind evaluation - trust. Teacher evaluation is built on relationships. It is built on the trusting relationship between teachers and supervisors.

Reformers can't see this very simple and most basic fact of teacher evaluation because they are focused on a fool's errand of seeking objectivity through numbers and a plan designed to weed out low performers, rather than a plan designed to improve performance of all teachers. These folks could have easily found out the flaws in the plan. All they needed to do was spend some time in schools talking to teachers and supervisors. To the extent that current teacher evaluation schemes interfere with teachers and supervisors developing trusting relationships, they are pre-ordained to fail.

I spent 15 years as a public school administrator charged with evaluating teachers. I knew going into the job that my main goal would be to provide teachers with useful feedback for improvement and that if the teachers were going to be willing to implement that feedback, they were going to have to trust me and trust that the feedback I gave was well-informed. I also knew that, while part of my job was to identify poor performers and place them on an action plan for improvement or remove them from the classroom, that the vast majority of the teachers I would be working with, say 95%, were competent professionals who would not be targets for removal. It only makes sense that an evaluation program spend most of its time on professional development rather than on trying to identify low performers.

And so, like most supervisors in public schools across the country in the pre-NCLB/RtTT days, I set about building relationships, listening to teachers, providing information and demonstration lessons, leading book clubs, observing instruction, and sitting down with teachers to provide constructive feedback. To the extent that I could show teachers I knew what I was talking about, the teachers would buy in. Sometimes in these discussions, I would just listen and learn. These evaluations were two-way streets and sometimes the teachers had better understandings than I did. More than a few times I changed an observation report after a conversation with a teacher showed me the thought behind instructional choices that I did not recognize.

When I had to act on a poorly performing teacher, my work on relationships paid off again. As a supervisor who worked to gain the trust of individual teachers, I also worked to gain the trust of the teachers union. Reformers want to paint the unions as the enemy, but coming out of the teacher union movement myself, I knew that it was not in the interest of the union to protect poor performers. Of course, the union's job was to be sure that members got due process and some administrators would see this as obstruction, but I did not find it so. On the several occasions when I needed to recommend the removal of a teacher, the union representative and I worked together to make it happen in as respectful a way as possible for the individual, but with the clear goal of improving educational outcomes for the students.

As I visit schools these days, I worry that the trusting relationship between supervisors and teachers is being undermined by policies that encourage a "gotcha" mentality, rather than a growth mentality. Data can help inform teachers, of course, but when the data is built on arcane statistical formulas that are far removed from the reality of the classroom and built into assessments that are far removed from the instruction in the classroom, that data and the people who deliver it will be seen by teachers as untrustworthy. Here is how I put in my book, A Parent's Guide to Public Education in the 21st Century (Garn Press).

Successful evaluation systems must be built on trust. Teachers do not trust the results of value-added measures for good reason; they have been shown to be unreliable, unfair and invalid. Trust is built through informed supervisors and reflective teachers holding professional conversations with each other around classroom practice and student performance. Once trust is established, the hard work of instructional improvement can begin (p 129).  

I am not one to pine for the "good old days" and I do believe in bringing new ideas into the schools and in the importance of having a good teacher in every classroom, but to the extent that corporate education reform policies and practices are destroying the trust between teacher and administrator, I have to say we are moving backward rather than forward. Do we need sound teacher evaluation policies? Undoubtedly. Will we get there with VAMs, rubrics,and standardized tests? Never. Can building trust between all stakeholders help? You bet.

If you do not have a subscription to Education Week and cannot access the Schoales article, Diane Ravitch has a good summary here.

My take on what teacher evaluation should look like from a two part series I wrote four years ago can be found here and here.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Defending Public Education from Trump's Tyranny

Last week on his show, Real Time, Bill Maher introduced the Yale professor and author, Timothy Snyder, whose new book is entitled, On Tyranny. The book outlines 20 lessons we can learn from the rise of fascism and communism in the 20th century to make sure the same does not happen to us in the 21st century. Lesson #2 caught my ear immediately: Defend Institutions. Snyder says

It is institutions that help us to preserve decency. They need our help as well. Do not speak of "our institutions" unless you make them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions do not protect themselves. They fall one after the other unless each is defended from the beginning. So choose an institution you care about - a court, a newspaper, a law, a labor union - and take its side.

OK, Professor Snyder, I choose public education as my institution to defend.

One way we can be sure that Trump and his minions are coming after our institutions is to see who the Tweeter-in-chief has chosen to head up various government departments. Almost to a person (Pruitt, Perry, Price), people who are opposed to the very institutions they are leading have been put in charge. If public education is to survive, we are going to have to fight for it. We cannot sit back and wait for this current nightmare to pass because by the time we wake up, it may be too late. It should be clear to all of us that the institution of public education is under a very real threat from the authoritarian Trump administration and its anti-public schools Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos.

The appointment of DeVos was the clearest indication from the new Trump administration that public education would be under siege. Next came the Trump budget proposal that, as Jeff Bryant reports here, strips money from after-school programs for poor children, reduces the overall budget of the department by 13%, but still finds billions of dollars for various school choice schemes.

As I have discussed in other posts, DeVos is a choice champion to beat all choice champions. Her recent pronunciations have doubled down on her favorite themes of education focusing on the "individual child", by which she appears to mean treating children like consumers in a market driven free-for-all. This will ultimately further enrich DeVos' already rich cronies and prop-up struggling ideologically driven religious schools. At a talk at the Brookings institution, DeVos likened her vision of education to the ride-sharing service Uber. So, that is her vision. Education as a phone app, where kids plug in their info and get a teacher named Ricky, who may or may not know anything about teaching. Apparently DeVos would like to spread her market driven vision of schooling uber alles.

Make no mistake about it, school choice will destroy public education. Americans always respond well to the idea of choice, but this is a choice that Americans cannot live with. School choice means less money for the schools that 80% of children attend. School choice means public funds going to religious schools that teach creationism and a literal interpretation of the Bible. School choice means schools employing uncertified, unqualified teachers. School choice means children attending schools that are not held accountable for the quality of their curriculum, teaching, or programs. School choice means that parents and community members lose their voice in the education of their children. 

And so as Professor Snyder warns us, we must act now to defend this greatest of all American institutions. By defending public education, we do not need to ignore the problems in public schools, but we do need to make sure the public knows that choice is not the answer to those problems. Public schools are a common good and a common responsibility. The choice we must be championing is the choice that most Americans still want - a well-resourced, professionally-staffed, local, neighborhood public school. The school choice schemes of DeVos and Trump make this clear choice less likely.

What can we do to defend our great institution? I would suggest the following:
  • Be informed - DeVos' concept of choice simply does not work and study after study has found this. Here is a place to start reading. And charter schools have failed to deliver on their promise as well. Here is Bruce Baker in a recent study on charters. The education reform industry is well-financed and has propagated the narrative of failing public schools. We all need to push back at this narrative with information. A good clearing house for this information is found through Diane Ravitch's blog, which provides the best information on what is going on in reform from the anti-reform movement perspective.
  • Speak up - All voices are needed. Some speak up through blogs, some speak up through emails and letters to their congressional representatives, some speak up by marching in the streets. We can all speak up through our membership in groups that are defending public education and who have a voice in Washington and on the internet. One such group is the Network for Public Education, which has become an effective voice against the corporate reform privatizers. Another effective group is the Badass Teacher's Association, which has proven over the last few years to truly live up to its name. And while you may not always agree with the positions of the national teacher unions, Snyder has warned us that tyrants seek to discredit and destroy unions as one way to seize power. DeVos is notably anti-union and so are many of Trump's cabinet cronies. It is time to set petty differences aside and make sure teacher unions stay strong.
  • Get involved - One of the central strengths of the institution of public education is local control. Elected local school board members set policy, pass budgets, review curriculum, and build and repair infrastructure based on their best understanding of the wants and needs of the taxpayers, parents and students of the local municipality. It is no coincidence that when privatizers seek to establish themselves in local communities, the first thing they do is try to subvert democratic process. This is what has happened in the major cities where privatization has taken hold, like Detroit, Philadelphia, New York and Chicago. It is the same model that led to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Lately, citizens have been waking up to what is happening and are responding by running for local council and school board positions to make sure that local control remains a central part of our public schools. Not all of us can run for public office, but most of us can find the time to attend school board meetings and council meetings and make sure politicians are representing the best interests of the community and when they are not, making sure they hear about it in their meetings and at the ballot box. 
Our institutions are under assault. One of the most vulnerable of these institutions is public education. If we do not fight for it, we will lose it. If we do fight for it, perhaps we can turn the conversation about schools around and focus on what is really causing our educational problems - income inequity, prejudice, and segregation.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

School Vouchers: Welfare for the Rich, the Racist, and the Religious Right

Our new Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, is rich, white, and a proselytizing supporter of the Christian religious right. DeVos is also an outspoken champion of school vouchers. These two things are not coincidences. While voucher proponents will tell you, and some may even believe, that their push for vouchers is a push to make sure all children have the opportunity to get a great education, the real benefactors of school vouchers are the rich, the white and the religious right.

What are vouchers exactly? School vouchers come in many forms and since the general public is typically opposed to voucher schemes, politicians who favor them have come up with a variety of Orwellian doublespeak names for them like Opportunity Scholarships, Education Choice Scholarships, or the Education Savings Accounts. Another way states have found to get around calling vouchers vouchers is the scholarship tax credit. These schemes allow individuals and corporations to direct their tax monies to private institutions who then use the money for scholarships for students.

The idea behind vouchers, originally suggested by economist Milton Friedman in the 1950s, is that the competition for students carrying vouchers will improve all schools, that children stuck in "underperforming" schools will find a way out through a voucher system, and that parents will get to exercise choice.

DeVos claims that voucher opponents are foes of change and champions of the status quo. I hope to show that it is the voucher schemes and the DeVos' of the world who are championing the status quo - the status quo where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer as we see happening in this country right now.

What are the problems with vouchers? Do vouchers achieve the supposed goal of improving educational opportunity for low-income and minority children? Many have cataloged the issues, but here is a quick list with some links for further reading.

So why the push for vouchers? Because vouchers are very good for the rich. If the rich can sell vouchers as the cure for educational inequality, they may be able to get people to ignore the real reason for public education struggles - income inequity. If the rich really want to improve schools, they need to put their money on the line. If the rich are really interested in helping poor school children they need to invest - through higher taxes (or maybe just by paying their fair share of taxes), not unreliable philanthropy, in improved health care, child care, parental education, pre-school education, public school infrastructure and on and on. This will be expensive, but we can do it if the wealthy would show the same dedication to the "civil rights issue of our time" with their wallets as they show to harebrained schemes like vouchers.

So vouchers are good for the rich, but they are also good for the racist. Voucher schemes were born in the racist south in the 1950s right after the Brown v. Board of Education struck down school segregation. After that ruling, many states passed voucher schemes to allow white parents to send their children to private schools and take taxpayer money with them. Many children, black and white, are still feeling the negative impact of this racist response to desegregation. Today, vouchers have similar effects on schools. Vouchers may not provide enough money for low-income and minority students to attend private schools, but they may well provide enough money to subsidize attendance for their slightly more affluent white neighbors. Hence, vouchers exacerbate school segregation, especially considering that white parents are likely to send their children to schools where the majority of the children are white. This limits the incentive for majority white private schools to seek true diversity. So if you are a racist, a segregationist, school vouchers will be very good for you. Meanwhile, your "choice" is denying the choice of a good neighborhood school to your minority neighbors.

Vouchers schemes are a windfall for religious schools. In Indiana, former Governor Mike Pence, yes that guy, oversaw one of the largest school voucher programs in the country. Almost everyone of the "voucher schools" in Indiana is religious. According to Mother Jones , the Indiana voucher program provided a publicly funded bailout for the Catholic schools that were struggling under declining enrollment and increased expenses. The Indiana choice law prohibits the state from influencing the curriculum of religious schools so schools are free to use public money to teach creationism, the Bible as literal truth, or to use textbooks that provide a positive take on the KKK. Again, this is no accident, Pence, like DeVos, is a champion of the religious right.

In a recent article entitled Dismal Voucher Results Surprise Researchers as DeVos Era Begins, the New York Times chronicled the most recent research on school vouchers. The Times cited research from 2015 in Mike Pence's own Indiana that showed that public school students who used vouchers to transfer to private school showed significant losses in mathematics achievement. They also cited a recent Louisiana study that showed negative results for students in both reading and math. Finally, they cited a study from last June by the choice friendly Thomas Fordham Institute that found in Ohio that "students who who use vouchers to attend private schools have fared worse academically compared to their closely matched peers attending public school."

Now I do not expect research to trump ideology in a DeVos led Department of Education, so the only recourse people who really care about public education, like public school teachers and administrators, parents, and students have is to resist - to resist loudly, clearly and persistently over the foreseeable future. The good news is that the resistance can be driven, not just by emotion and passion, but by actual research and genuine facts. A group of students in the Richardson, Texas school district showed us all how this can be done. They reduced choice champion, Texas Senator Dan Huffines, to a sputtering, vitriol spewing idiot by simply asking a few pointed questions about choice. Huffines was all in a, well, huff, because a student dared to point out that his beloved voucher scheme would not work out well for the majority of children in the district.

It is interesting to me that so many of the champions of school choice are opponents of reproductive choice. I think it is because the whole argument for school choice is not really about choice or educational quality - it is about control. Control of the mind and control of the body. Wealthy proponents of choice from DeVos to the Waltons to Donald Trump want to control the masses. Public education is a messy place where kids are taught to think critically and where teachers join unions to insist on a decent salary and good working conditions. Thinking citizens are harder to control. Teacher unions get in the way of doing education on the cheap. Who knows, public school educated future Walmart employees may insist on unionizing. Some of those inquisitive public school kids may discover that DeVos and her husband built their fortune on a business model that is a scam.

If, on the other hand, the wealthy can control the public funds going to education, there is lots of money to be made from for-profit schools. The drive for school vouchers is one in the same with the drive to turn the vast majority of the children in the country into willing conscripts in a new America - an America that is an oligarchy of the 1%.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Next Steps in the DeVos Fight: Resist, Resist, Resist

The Republican dominated Senate has confirmed the clearly unqualified Betsy DeVos to be Secretary of Education. We can see this inexplicable vote as just another in a long line of votes where the government has decided to put partisan politics in front of good sense and good governance. One thing is sure, Betsy DeVos’ confirmation is a bad thing for public education, parents, teachers, and children.

What might not be as apparent is that Betsy DeVos’ confirmation is also bad for corporate education reformers. Education reformers got an education reformer in the cabinet position all right, but they also got the dumbest, most clueless, education reformer in the history of education reform to represent their interests. Even worse (better?) the whole world knows it. DeVos can now prepare herself for endless social media shares of her laughable Senate hearing performance, plus continued ridicule from late night TV hosts, and the awakened anger of teachers and parents across the country. I understand that one of the new Secretary’s first official trips in her position will include a crusade against anti-education grizzlies in the public schools of Colorado. Pack your gun and Bible, Betsy.

DeVos enters office as the only presidential cabinet appointment in history to require a tie-breaking vote from the Vice-President. That scion of education reform, champion of anti-LGBT legislation, and Trump toady, Mike Pence, cast the deciding vote. I like the irony of the dumbest education reformer in America needing the vote of the second dumbest education reformer in America to take up her position. It makes me think of a title for a new movie sequel: Dumb and Dumber Go to Washington.

I have never had anything nice to say about billionaire reformer Eli Broad, but he seems to be one education reformer who sees DeVos as a danger to his (misguided) movement. He wrote to Senate leaders saying that DeVos was “unprepared and unqualified.” He recognizes that bad leadership, even when it aligns with your own thinking, is bad for everybody. Perhaps you’ve noticed what is happening in the White House.

As Peter Greene has pointed out on his blog Curmudgucation, DeVos is awful and will be awful for public education, but

[the] upside of that is that people, understanding her level of awful, may actually wake up and pay attention. It's not a full return for the shellacking public education is about to take, but it's not nothing, either.

So while we have every reason to fear that DeVos will be a terrible steward of public education, we have the solace in knowing she will likely be a terrible administrator of the department and will have a difficult time moving her vile agenda forward and when one of her hare-brained schemes does manage to see the light of day, lots of people, not just veterans of the anti—corporate reform movement, will be paying attention.

So now we lick our wounds, the fight against DeVos’ confirmation was a worthy one that had little chance of succeeding in its ultimate goal, but has been successful in shining a light on the hollow and harmful motives of school privatizers. Now our job is to keep up the heat. Keep Betsy in the headlines and on social media; call her out for every mistaken idea and misstep. Tweet. Post. Write to your elected officials. Write to your local newspaper. Keep working. It will be exhausting, but necessary and important, work.

Resist. Resist. Resist.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Beyond Grades: How Are We Doing?

The fourth in a series on grades and grading

In previous posts I have argued that we need to move away from grades as a method of assessment because grades are a poor way to provide feedback to students and also a poor way to provide feedback to parents. In this last in the series on grades, I will argue that grades are also a particularly poor way to provide feedback to schools. 

Throughout the country the grading of schools has become fashionable. Florida, under the leadership of reform minded Jeb Bush, was the first state to adopt A-F grading for schools. since that time 15 other states have hopped on this bandwagon. These grades for schools are largely based on student performance on standardized tests. Corporate education reformers have sought to use school grades as a whip to make what they see as struggling schools shape up. Grading schools in this way has great appeal to legislators, because it allows them to give the appearance of caring about the quality of education without having to actually provide any resources that might help improve education in places that are wracked by poverty and years of inattention.

  • No decision about a school's performance should be based on a single data point or single test.
  • A valid measure of school performance should be comprehensive, accounting for school processes, conditions, practices, and outcomes.
  • Qualitative and quantitative measures should be used to measure school performance
  • Information from any accountability system should target school improvement, not high-stakes consequences.
I would add that grading schools in this manner leads to a narrowing of the curriculum to focus on tested subjects, the destruction of morale for low performing schools in high poverty areas and a false sense of security for schools receiving high grades simply because their affluent students score well on standardized tests.

Is there a better way to hold schools accountable? Of course. The trick is that providing schools with useful feedback requires time, commitment, vision and resources; things that simply assigning a grade does not require. The best way to hold schools accountable is to provide a dynamic assessment of the kinds of opportunities they are providing to their students. The school recognition program Schools of Opportunity* has developed guidelines for evaluating schools based on just such a concept. Currently, Schools of Opportunity is a small, all volunteer organization working each year to recognize schools that are providing great opportunities for their children despite many obstacles. The Schools of Opportunity template is one that every state in the country could emulate to truly hold schools accountable for serving children. Here are the things that this group says good schools must do.
  • Create and maintain a healthy school culture free of bullying and welcoming to all students and adults.
  • Broaden and enrich school curriculum to include all core subjects, physical education, health and the visual and performing arts.
  • Provide more and better learning time during and after the school year through extended school days, clubs and activities and summer programs.
  • End disparities in learning opportunities reinforced by tracking.
  • Use a variety of assessments designed to respond to student needs, inform teachers on instructional priorities, and to help administrators make programmatic decisions.
  •  Reassess student discipline policies to focus on keeping students in school.
  • Support teachers as professionals through strong mentoring programs, professional development and time to meet and work with colleagues.
  • Provide adequate resources to support a well-maintained, clean, safe, school environment.
  • Address key health issues through a professionally staffed responsive health facility.
  • Build on the strengths of language minority students by viewing language minority students as assets from whom all can learn.
  • Expand access to professionally staffed libraries and well-maintained and easily accessible internet resources.
I highlighted the "use a variety of assessments to respond to student needs" to emphasize the difference between a school grade approach and an "opportunity" approach. Since No Child Left Behind, standardized tests have been the key, and often the only, measure of school quality used to hold schools accountable. When NCLB came along in 2002, most schools used standardized tests on a limited basis, often 3 times in the life of a school child, to inform administrators and teachers how kids were doing based on a measure that had some generalizability across schools and school districts. After 2002 standardized tests spread to every grade level and were used for high stakes purposes such as retaining students, firing teachers and administrators, and even closing schools. The problems with using standardized tests for high-stakes accountability are many and have been recounted often. For a summary, you can read this document from Fair Test, a national testing watch dog group. Suffice it to say here, that standardized tests do little to help teachers adjust instruction or to inform students of their needs.

A "school of opportunity" needs a variety of measures to fulfill its mission of designing an accountability program that provides actionable feedback to teachers, parents, and students. Standardized tests do have a role - a small one. Given three times during a child's school career (and not used for any high-stakes decision making) standardized tests can help a school, a district, and its parents get a rough idea of how well the school is doing in meeting students needs. Much more important to administrators, teachers, students and parents, however, would be the regular formative and summative assessments that are used by teachers working with students in the classroom each day.

One promising assessment tool that is appearing in more and more schools is the common assessment. The common assessment is a kind of half-way house between the formative classroom assessment individual teachers use in the classroom every day  and the standardized test that is mostly disconnected from the actual classroom. In a common assessment, a group of teachers who are teaching the same subject, say Environmental Science in Grade 9, from the same curriculum, work together to design an assessment based on what students at that school are expected to know and be able to do in Environmental Science. By designing the common assessment, the teachers agree on expectations for students and on how student learning will be measured. Teachers are free to instruct in ways most likely to help children to achieve the desired goals, so autonomy is maintained within the framework of the district approved curriculum.

The strengths of a common assessment approach are many. Most importantly, teachers get information on what their students know and are able to do that can inform future instruction and students get feedback on their strengths and weaknesses based on a common set of criteria. Common assessments also give the teachers the opportunity to look at a variety of instructional methods for delivering the same content and then choose those methods that work best. This type of work gives a professional learning community real purpose and has a real impact as a professional development tool.

Common assessments also fit nicely into the arguments I have made in previous posts about the weakness of letter grades in providing feedback to students and parents. These school generated assessments allow the teacher to tell students exactly what they know and are able to do and what they need to work on. 

Of course many and varied assessments make up the full picture for any school. Common assessments deal with academic aspects of the assessment. Other measures are necessary to judge climate, inclusiveness, and equity in a true school of opportunity.

We must go beyond grading and look closely at what is happening in schools in order to provide our schools with useful, actionable feedback. That is what a true accountability system looks like. It cannot be done on the cheap and it cannot be done by a narrow minded focus on an A-F grade for schools.

*Schools of Opportunity is a school recognition project co-directed by award-winning former public school principal, Carol Burris and University of Colorado professor, Kevin G. Welner. You can learn more about the group and also learn how to nominate your school for recognition by going to the group's web site here.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Writing Strategies Book, by Jennifer Serravallo A Review

Jennifer Serravallo calls herself a “dedicated reading and writing workshop teacher.” As any dedicated reading and writing workshop teacher will tell you, teaching in this fashion is both tremendously rewarding and damned hard work. In her new book, The Writing Strategies Book, Serravallo has given the hard-working literacy teacher just the kind of help she needs. The Writing Strategies Book is a companion book to The Reading Strategies Book, which Serravallo released two years ago and which I reviewed here. Like the earlier book, The Writing Strategies Book has Serravallo’s characteristically thoughtful organization, grounding in research, and helpful format. Whatever your concern about the needs of a particular writer or group of writers in grades K-8, you are likely to find assistance here.

The book is organized around ten goals, arranged in a loose hierarchy. Serravallo’s view (reflecting Hattie’s research) is that the skillful writing teacher assists students to articulate a goal and then provides strategies and feedback to help them achieve that goal. The ten goals are composing with pictures, engagement, generating ideas, focus, organization/structure, elaboration, word choice, conventions, and partnerships and clubs. These goals are then arranged in such a way to allow teachers to pick and choose appropriately for students at different levels of writing development.

Each chapter introduces the goal and suggests how to know if the teacher is choosing the right goal for a particular writing student. The chapters also contain dozens of strategies to help the harried teacher meet the individual needs of students at varying levels of control of the writing process. These strategy sheets, similar to those in Serravallo’s previous book, are little masterpieces of design to help the teacher use them efficiently and effectively. Each strategy sheet tells you for whom the strategy is designed (grade levels, genre, processes) and contains an explanation of the strategy, teaching tips, prompts to use with the writer, and a Hat Tip that provides the interested reader with a place to look for further reading on the topic.

Speaking of the strategies approach to teaching writing, Serravallo says "Strategies help to take something that proficient writers do naturally and without conscious effort, and make it visible, clear, doable for the student writer. The strategies addressed are many and varied. Here is a sampling.

  • Reread Your Pictures So It Sounds like a Storybook
  • Experiment with Change
  • Reread to Jump Back In
  • Observe Closely
  • Subtopics Hiding in Topics
  • Defining Moments
  • Zoom in on a Moment of Importance
  • Moving from Chunk to Chunk
  • Write the Bones, then Go Back to Flesh It Out
  • See the World like a Poet
  • Be Your Own Harshest Critic
  • Precise Nouns
  • Vary Words to Eliminate Repetition
  • Visualize the Word and Have-a-Go
  • Write, Reread, Write, Reread, Repeat
  • Creating Complex Sentences
  • Voice Comma
  • Talk Around the Idea, Then Write
  • Stroytelling to Figure Out Point of View and Perspective
It is a daunting array of strategies, but fortunately Serravallo provides an introductory chapter, Getting Started, that clearly explains how to use the book and provides a great many suggestions for setting up a writing workshop in the classroom. Whether you are new to writing workshop, or a writing workshop veteran, you will want to start here to learn how to use the book most effectively and for the suggestions for setting up the classroom.

The Writer Strategies Book is true to its subtitle, Your Everything Guide to Developing Skilled Writers. It belongs on your desk right next to your plan book to provide a helping hand as you work to help children become skillful and willing writers. 

Serravallo, Jennifer. (2017). The Writing Strategies Book: Your Everything Guide to Developing Skilled Writers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Value of Student-Led Parent Conferences

I am indebted to my colleague, reader, and fellow blogger, Steven Zemelman, for this guest post. As a follow-up to my recent posts on the limits of grading, Steven looks at one very promising alternative to grades for student evaluation

By Steven Zemelman

Ina recent blog post, Russ wrote about the severe limitations of grades in communicating to parents about their child’s learning. It seems that while many teachers consider traditional letter grades to be problematic, they believe parents demand grades as a measure of how their child is doing.

This discussion reminded me of the many teachers and schools around the country using student-led parent conferences to give parents a more in-depth look at how children are doing. To define it briefly, in student-led conferences students show, explain, and sometimes even demonstrate for their parents or guardians the work they’ve been doing in school. This can take place on a parent night or successively scheduled teacher-parent-child meetings. Yes, there’s time and work involved. Effective conferences must be preceded by considerable preparation on the students’ part, but it is preparation that immerses them in review, reflection, and the writing out of explanations. So it’s not an “extra” task but rather a deep learning experience that can substitute for review time that both children and teachers often find tedious. Further, it helps parents understand how the teacher approaches instruction, as well as their child’s strengths and challenges, and how they can help at home. And especially important, it empowers young people to use their voices authentically and authoritatively, something that is all too rare for them.

There are a variety of ways that teachers have structured the conferences. Some set them up as individual meetings with the teacher, parents, and child all involved together. Others prepare “stations” through which the children and their parents rotate to cover each subject. Still others have students each set up a display of materials at a spot in the room so that multiple conferences take place at once, with the teacher circulating to answer questions as needed. Teachers who use student-led conferences have developed a variety of tools to support the process:
  • protocols and guide sheets to help students choose and organize their artifacts and draft their goals, explanations, and self-evaluations
  •  room arrangements to facilitate the conference process
  • lessons to help students prepare their conference presentation.
Some issues do arise with student-led conferences. Not all parents are able to attend conferences, so an arrangement may be needed for those students to present their work to some other adult. Administrators or teachers who are not otherwise meeting with parents may need to be called on for this role. Conversely, some parents may want more opportunity to discuss things with the teacher. Some children may not complete the preparatory work, for legitimate reasons or a lack of engagement – after all, teachers are not always able to succeed with every student, in spite of our tendency  toward perfectionism, wishing all would succeed. In this case a more traditional conference may be called for. Additionally, time available may be shorter than desirable, requiring that the session focus on just one or two subjects or just a few samples of the students’ work.

Here are some excellent resources available on the Web, to help you in implementing student-led conferences.

Ashley Cronin, “Student-Led Conferences: Resources for Educators,” Edutopia post July 8, 2016  -- a thorough explanation with links to many other resources on how to implement this strategy.

Wildwood IB World Magnet School, Chicago, “Student-Led Conferences: Empowerment and Ownership,” Edutopia post Aug. 24, 2015 -- a practical and down-to-earth explanation of how one middle school does this, with handy tools and resources attached.

Several book-length explorations of student-led conferences are available as well.

--Steven Zemelman is Director of the Illinois Writing Project, author of professional books on literacy for teachers, and most recently, From Inquiry to Action: Civic Engagement with Project-Based Learning in All Content Areas. His blog on student civic action can be found at .

Sunday, January 22, 2017

No, Betsy, School Choice Is Not a Good Thing

With choice champion, Betsy DeVos, under consideration for Secretary of Education, I thought it would be a good time to revisit what school choice really means. This post is adapted from my book, A Parent's Guide to Public Education in the 21st Century, published by Garn Press.

What could be more American than choice? The country was founded on the principle of freedom of choice in speech, in religion, in the press, in assembly. Corporate education reformers tap into this most American of values by stating that parents, who after all pay for their child’s education through taxes, should have choice in where they send their children to school. If a school is not performing well, and for the reformers this means the school is achieving low test scores, parents should have the right to choose a different school. As reformers are often heard to say, “zip code should not be destiny.” In other words, where you go to school and the quality of the school you go to should not be determined by where you live. 

For wealthy Americans, choice has always been available. Affluent parents have the option of sending their children to a private school of their choosing – a school that offers the type of curriculum and academic and social environment the parents find desirable. Less affluent middle-class families often exercise their choice by where they choose to live. I was once on a lengthy flight out of Newark, New Jersey’s Liberty Airport, seated next to an Indian-American man who lived in northern New Jersey. We got into a conversation where I learned that he had two young children and I happened to mention the school district I worked in. The man said, “Oh yes, I know the district well, my wife and I are saving to move there because we have heard the schools are so good.”

This story is repeated over and over throughout the country daily and real estate agents are sure to include the quality of the schools in their sales pitch when the schools have a good reputation. Of course, a reputation for high quality schools means high housing costs and usually high property taxes (and efforts to limit affordable housing). A large portion of the populace is effectively excluded to access to these “high-achieving” school districts by economic inequity. 

Education reformers seek to emulate the choice enjoyed by the affluent and the upper middle class by offering the choice of the publicly funded, but privately run, charter school and the school voucher, which provides parents with money, again taken from public funds, to offset the cost of sending children to private institutions. If parents have such “choice’, the reformers’ story goes, public schools, charters and private schools will compete for public monies and all schools will improve performance. 

While all of this may sound good and may appeal to the American sense of freedom, civilized societies have long recognized that choice is not an absolute good. In America, we have the choice to smoke if we wish. I am old enough to remember entering the smoke-filled teachers’ lounge in Bristol Jr.-Sr. High School in the 1970’s. Smokers and non-smokers graded papers, planned lessons, held meetings and ate lunch in a haze of cigarette smoke that yellowed the fingers of the smokers and the formerly cream-colored walls of the cramped room.  

Today, of course, we may still smoke if we wish, but we do not have the choice to smoke in the teachers’ lounge or anywhere on school property for that matter. We have come to recognize that one person’s choice to smoke may infringe on another person’s choice to breathe. 

I am also old enough to remember when seat belts were first introduced into cars in the late fifties and how we were more likely to sit on them than strap them around our waists. Using the seat belt was a choice. While we can still make that choice, when we do so we are breaking the law and can be fined for failure to “buckle-up.” The government came to realize that our choices needed to be limited for the public good. Seat belts saved lives and saved medical costs and so our choice was legislated away. 

Like many of my generation, I was a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War. In those days there was much talk about choosing to withhold that part of our taxes that was being used to wage the war. Those who tried this were brought to court by the Internal Revenue Service. The courts, of course, ruled that because the government was charged by the Constitution to “provide for the common defense”, the government had every right to collect my taxes for the military. I was free to choose to speak out against the war, assemble peacefully to protest the war and write letters to the editor about the war, but I could not withhold my taxes. My choices were limited by law. 

In our society we have come to recognize that choice is a good thing as long as it does not interfere with others’ choices. What if an inner-city parent’s choice is to send a child to a clean, safe, well-resourced, professionally-staffed, neighborhood public school? By draining away the limited funds and resources available for public education, charter schools and voucher schemes infringe on that parent’s choice. Public monies are rightly spent to make that good local school a reality. In public education, as with smoking and seat belts and the military, the government must choose to limit our choice in order to provide for, as the Constitution says, “the common good.” Public education is a common good that privatization in the form of charters and vouchers will destroy. 

For more on the damage that charter schools and vouchers do to public education see my earlier posts here and here.